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America’s hidden supply crisis: An educated workforce
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America’s hidden supply crisis: An educated workforce

We should not dissuade our youth from college but instead should remind them that education is an investment that pays dividends for the rest of your life.

In tomorrow’s interconnected world, the role of education in shaping a country’s ability to compete on the global stage cannot be overstated. A well-educated workforce is a prerequisite to any American company’s ability to drive the innovation and productivity needed to compete on the global stage while improving economic prosperity and social well-being at home.

Yet in the face of this increased demand for educated employees, the narrative against academia in America is deafening. We hear Ivy League-educated pundits, sporting prep-school fashion, railing against intelligentsia and the “elites.” We witness congressmen grilling university presidents as if they were enemies of the state. As parents revolt against school boards, donors threaten to defund universities, and tech entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel toss around incentives for our youth to “just say no” to postsecondary education, our country’s values clearly have changed.

Our demand for an educated workforce is steadily growing while our supply is heading in the wrong direction.

Parents from all over the planet still dream of sending their children to America for the finest education attainable. In contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal article addressed “Why Americans have lost faith in the value of college.” While one cannot discount the challenges facing our academic institutions today and the barriers to education, we must not let inertia and polarization take over our ability to improve the system.

Many articles today point to a dramatic increase in the cost of a college education. They point out that the average cost to attend college in 1980 was approximately $10,000 per year, but few complete the analysis to show that the comparison in today’s dollars would be nearly $40,000 or that the minimum wage in 1980 was just over $3 an hour.

Meanwhile, college discount rates at some of the finest schools have increased to between 40-50%. In other words, the $80,000 sticker price at many of our most prestigious institutions equates to nearly half that amount being paid by the average student. This is a result of the increasing generosity of donors building huge endowments that can help fund discounts to underprivileged students.

On balance, the actual cost of attending college today isn’t nearly as prohibitive as many would believe. While the cost of a quality education is too high for many, we can help students overcome this obstacle by making them aware of scholarships and helping to provide access to financial aid.

Another obstacle: Many of our students aren’t prepared for their college education.

English language proficiency and early learning programs have become a much greater challenge as the population has grown more diverse. Increased urbanization, a dramatic decrease in two-parent households, and a host of other societal changes created new problems. Change is always difficult but especially for those institutions providing basic government-funded services. State and local governments have struggled to keep pace with the changing needs.

American students have performed in the middle of the pack in reading and science but significantly below other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in math. Postsecondary graduation rates are down, especially among males. Meanwhile, other developed countries have increased their emphasis on education and have shown steady improvement in PISA scores and graduation rates.

As a result, U.S. companies are increasingly turning to foreign nationals to fill professional roles. For example, roughly one in four physicians and surgeons practicing in the United States are foreign-born. While there may be many reasons for this trend toward foreign-born professionals in our workforce, the reality is that our demand for an educated workforce is steadily growing while our supply is heading in the wrong direction.

The ability of American companies to sustain or grow their ability to compete globally is at stake. I saw this from the helm of both 7-Eleven and Blockbuster over 20 years ago as we struggled to fill the jobs needed to manage thousands of stores across the country. As with any supply-chain problem, I believe that corporations will ultimately rise to the challenge. Just as we have with so many business solutions, we must harness the power of technology to help us transform the supply chain of our most valuable resource: human knowledge.

Technology has been able to help us completely reinvent other aspects of American life from the way we buy groceries to the way we communicate. We must leverage the advancements in technology today to improve the way we teach and learn.

In the near term, we can certainly encourage the use of technology to supplement traditional, in-class learning. The pandemic gave us a gift in some ways. For example, the urgency of at-home learning caused companies like AT&T, Microsoft, Apple, and many others to step up with Wi-Fi hotspots, hardware, and software that make online learning accessible to high school students across the country. Such urgency accelerated students’ access to technology by as much as 20 years. This near-term capability is present today, and students have free, unlimited access to tools like Kahn Academy to bolster their in-class learning. Young people have more access to learning in the palm of their hands than ever before in the history of mankind.

An important next step is to encourage corporations to assess the cost-benefit of investment in public education. In other words, corporations should consider support for public schools as an investment, not philanthropy. Companies can find a measurable return on their investment in public schools by reducing recruiting and training costs if they improve access to an educated workforce.

We should urge our tech leaders to develop open solutions for educational platforms that integrate engaging and incentive-based tools, making them world-class. We have at our fingertips the tools to use machine learning to enhance human learning exponentially by curating the teaching methods to how individuals will learn most effectively. Such tools can even help us reimagine the role of the teacher in teaching and learning.

Finally, we should encourage our young people to recognize the importance of education to unlock their full potential. If they wish to pursue a vocation, that’s equally noble, but they should be aware of all options and encouraged to learn as much as possible. If they don’t have a clear picture of their ultimate career path — like many of us — then encourage them to get as much breadth of knowledge as possible to provide options.

The bottom line: We should not dissuade our youth from college but instead should remind them that education is an investment that pays dividends for the rest of your life.

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Jim Keyes

Jim Keyes

Jim Keyes is the author of “Education Is Freedom” and former CEO of 7-Eleven and Blockbuster.